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Should schools rethink reluctance to track students by ability?

Released Thursday by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, the 15th annual Brown Center Report on American Education focuses on the effects of the Common Core on curriculum and achievement; whether tracking in eighth grade is related to Advanced Placement outcomes in high school; and school leadership from an international perspective.

Here are the highlights of the report:

Part One: Reading and Math in the Common Core Era

The Common Core State Standards have been adopted as the reading and math standards in more than forty states, but are the frontline implementers—teachers and principals—enacting them?

Key findings include:

  • The dominance of fiction is waning: In 2011, 63% of fourth grade teachers said they emphasized fiction to a great extent, vs. only 38% who said the same of non-fiction. This 25 percentage point gap shrunk to just 8 percentage points in 2015.
  • Fewer eighth graders are enrolled in advanced math: From 2011 to 2013, the long-standing growth of advanced courses stopped dead in its tracks; from 2013 to 2015, enrollment in advanced math declined from 48% to 43%.
  • These changes are associated with adoption of the Common Core: States that are classified as “medium” or “strong” implementers of the standards were more likely than the average state to see a de-emphasis of fiction and a decline in advanced math enrollment.
  • Implementation status is unrelated to changes in NAEP scores: Gains and losses (from 2009-2015) among strong, medium, and non-implementers of Common Core all fall within a single NAEP scale score point—a trivial difference.

Part Two: Tracking and AP

Tracking, the practice of grouping students into different classes based on ability or prior achievement, is a controversial topic. In this study, Loveless investigates whether middle school tracking is related to AP participation or test scores in high school, using state-level tracking data from 2009 and AP data from 2013 to tackle the question.

Key findings include:

  • Tracking in eighth grade math is popular across states: The average state tracked about three-quarters of its math students, with Arkansas the least tracked state (50%) and Nevada the most tracked (97%).
  • States that had a larger percentage of eighth grade students in tracked math classes produced a larger percentage of high-scoring AP students four years later.  The heightened AP performance held across racial subgroups—white, black, and Hispanic.
  • There was no relationship between tracking and AP participation, suggesting the heightened performance on AP exams was not a result of increased selectivity into AP.

Part Three: Principals as Instructional Leaders–An International Perspective

All around the world, school principals are called on to provide instructional leadership.  In this study, Loveless asks: What does that leadership look like from country to country; and is it associated with student achievement?

Key findings include:

  • Principals are most likely to exert influence over instruction by developing and setting educational goals for their schools (versus other types of leadership activities). More than 50% of fourth grade students internationally have a principal who devotes “a lot of time” to developing and promoting their schools’ educational goals and monitoring teachers’ implementation of those goals.  Less time is spent giving advice to teachers about questions or problems with teaching (39%).
  • In three consistently high achieving countries — Finland, Hong Kong, and Japan — principals are especially reluctant to give advice; however, principals in Korea, another perennially high achieving country, are more activist in offering instructional guidance.
  • There is no evidence that principals’ instructional activities are associated with student achievement (based on Loveless’ difference-in-differences analysis of whether changes in principal behaviors are correlated with changes in scores on the Trends in International Math and Science Study.

In reading the Brown Center report Wednesday night, I found the section on tracking the most interesting, given the antipathy toward ability-grouping due to its misuse as a tool of segregation.

Here is a passage from the report worth discussing on the blog:

A positive relationship was found between tracking and superior performance on AP tests, the percentage of test takers scoring a 3 or better on AP tests. The positive relationship was statistically significant for white, black, and Hispanic students. The analysis cannot prove or disprove that tracking caused the heightened success on AP tests. The findings do support future research on the hypothesis that tracking benefits high achieving students—in particular, high achieving students of color—by offering accelerated coursework that they would not otherwise get in untracked schools.

The hypothesis that middle school tracking is associated with AP outcomes rests on the notion of an academic pipeline— that superior academic performance must be nurtured and developed over time. Think of how the following three phenomena coalesce to shape opportunity. First, students are assigned to tracks primarily based on achievement test scores. Because of the test score gaps between white and Asian students, on the one hand, and black and Hispanic students, on the other hand, honors classes or tracks designed to accelerate students often are demographically unrepresentative of their schools. That fact has invited severe criticism.

Second, in accordance with political opposition, schools in communities serving large numbers of black and Hispanic students tend to shun tracking. Accelerated classes are less likely to exist for students of color.

Third, much of the research on tracking has found that students in high tracks benefit academically from separate, accelerated coursework. Researchers believe that high-track students receive a boost from exposure to academically-oriented peers, teachers trained in acceleration, and a challenging curriculum. These three phenomena combine to limit opportunity for black and Hispanic youngsters. If tracking and accelerated coursework in eighth grade represent the beginning of a pipeline for promising young stars in mathematics or literature, that opportunity is more open to white and Asian students in suburban schools than to disadvantaged youngsters in schools serving students of color.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.